Some residents return at Mayor's invitation19/09/2005 - 17:21:47
Residents began trickling back today as part of a plan by the mayor to reopen New Orleans one postal code at a time, despite repeated warnings from the top federal official on the scene – and US President George Bush himself – that the city is not ready.
Mayor Ray Nagin defended his decision to let people back in, and suggested that the federal official in charge in New Orleans, Coast Guard Vice Adm Thad Allen, had made himself “the new crowned federal mayor of New Orleans.”
Algiers, a neighbourhood that is situated across the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans and saw little damage from Hurricane Katrina three weeks ago, was the first section to be reopened to residents.
Over the next week, the Uptown neighbourhood, the Garden District and the historic French Quarter are also set to reopen to residents and businesses at Nagin’s invitation, bringing a total about one-third of New Orleans’ half-million inhabitants back.
John Schwab, 31, came back to Algiers with his brother and encountered no checkpoint getting into the neighbourhood, despite warnings from the mayor that police would be checking IDs. Schwab owns a janitorial service that had contracts with movie studios. But they have all pulled out of New Orleans because of the storm
“I’ll probably have to look for a job in construction,” he said. “That’s about the only thing around.”
A few petrol stations and convenience stores were open, but little else. The manager of Winn Dixie supermarket said he had hoped to be open today, but it took longer than he anticipated to clear out the spoiled food and other debris.
“We’re now shooting for Thursday,” said Grady Shavers. “Salvage crews already took everything out of the store. That was a nasty job.”
In Washington, President Bush questioned the plan to let people back in, saying there are too many concerns about additional flooding and safety. “It’s a matter of timing,” he said after a meeting of his Homeland Security Council.
Bush said there is “deep concern” about the possibility that Tropical Storm Rita, which was headed toward the Florida Keys today, could drop more rain on New Orleans and breach the city’s levees again.
“We have made our position loud and clear,” Bush said. “The mayor is working hard. The mayor has got this dream about having his city up and running. We share that dream, but we also want to be realistic about some of the hurdles and obstacles.”
Allen, head of the federal government’s hurricane response, warned over the weekend – and again this morning – that city services may not be able to handle the influx of people.
He cited a lack of drinkable water and emergency telephone service, and expressed concern that another storm could cause the patchwork repairs to New Orleans’ levees to fail and bring another round of flooding.
“Our concern is when you have the general population returning in large numbers without the proper infrastructure to support them,” Allen said on NBC’s Today show.
He said hoped to meet with the mayor tonight to discuss his concerns and work out a timetable for bringing the city back.
Asked on CBS’ Early Show when it would be safe for people to return, he said, “We know potable water will probably be restored soon and the levees will be fixed, so that may mean days, weeks.”
Nagin defended the decision to bring people back.
“If he’s suggesting I’m pushing a little hard, I am. The citizens of New Orleans deserve the opportunity to see what they have left and what they can salvage,” Nagin said in response to Allen’s warnings.
“I’m a little surprised the admiral came out publicly on this,” he added. “Maybe since I’ve been away a day or two, maybe he’s the new crowned federal mayor of New Orleans.”
The vice president of the national hospital accreditation organisation also cautioned against reopening parts of the city, saying several hospitals probably were damaged beyond repair, while others may try to rush back into business before conditions are safe.
Others, while rebuilding, may lose doctors and nurses to communities elsewhere.
“Essentially the health care infrastructure of New Orleans is gone – it no longer exists,” said Joe Cappiello, who had just completed a three-day mission to the city for the Illinois-based Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organisations.
Although the city has more than a dozen hospitals, none has resumed normal operations. Officials at Children’s Hospital, which Nagin had hoped would be ready in time for the planned return of residents to the Uptown neighbourhood, said they may need 10 more days to prepare.
The Garden District’s Touro Infirmary, one of the city’s largest hospitals, announced plans to reopen on Wednesday, when residents are due to start moving back there. That would make it the first hospital to reopen since the storm. Cleaning crews were busy yesterday carting out debris and readying the hospital.
Dr Brobson Lutz, New Orleans’ former health director and an assistant coroner for Orleans Parish, said the hospitals clearly will not be up to accreditation standards, but the city still needs them open as soon as possible.
“I don’t believe the people in New Orleans or the doctors give a hoot whether they accredit our hospitals or not,” Lutz said. “We need to have our emergency rooms open so that if people returning need emergency care for trauma or infections or other things, they can get it.”
Cappiello also said he had heard unconfirmed reports that some doctors may have euthanised some critically ill patients who could not be moved out, rather than leaving them to die from flooding or neglect.
“There was a whisper about that when we were down there,” he said. “It may prove to have some viability to it. Sometimes horrible decisions like that have to be made.”
The flooded areas of New Orleans continued shrinking over the weekend, but crews still searched by boat for the dead. The state Department of Health and Hospitals said the hurricane death toll in Louisiana had risen to 646. The toll across the Gulf Coast was 883.
In the impoverished and heavily damaged Ninth Ward, a search team found four corpses yesterday and also discovered a 39-year-old man who had survived in his home with his dog since the flood. Louie Fernandez, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s search and rescue operations, said the man – who gave his name as Reyne Johnson – was disoriented and taken to a medical centre for treatment.
Fernandez said the man may have sustained himself by eating some of the food that National Guardsmen had been leaving at the house for the dog.
Former President Bill Clinton, speaking on ABC’s This Week show yesterday, put some of the blame for the plight of the poor in New Orleans on the Bush administration.
“You can’t have an emergency plan that works if it only affects middle-class people up, and when you tell people to go do something they don’t have the means to do, you’re going to leave the poor out,” Clinton said, referring to the many poor people who did not have the necessary transportation to evacuate before the storm.
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